Into every generation a slay— wait, let’s try that again. Into every generation triplet queens are born. Each sister specializes in one of three magics: Mirabelle is a fiery elemental with the ability to command earth, wind, fire, and water; Arsinoe a naturalist who communes with plants and animals; and Katharine a cunning poisoner able to consume toxins as if they were sugar pills. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Instead, Mirabelle is the one with all the power and her younger sisters more or less giftless.
For decades, the poisoner faction has defeated the naturalists and elementals and retained control of the throne, yet with the backing the Temple of the Goddess and her priestesses, this year the elemental is the favored champion. No one thinks Arsinoe, the plain country mouse of the trio, even stands a chance. Nevertheless, all three will square off at Beltane on their sixteenth birthday. Three queens enter, only one will survive. Years of training in their arts has brought them to this moment, yet none of them are prepared for the chaos that ensues. Hearts are broken, loyalties tested, schemes foiled, and friendships betrayed. The queens must decide if they want to play by the rules and murder the only family they have left or take matters into their own hands and defy the Goddess and their kingdom.
I’ve been a fan of Kendare Blake’s ever since Anna Dressed in Blood, a vicious bite of YA horror that begs to be devoured. When Three Dark Crowns arrived on my doorstep, I practically tore the box open to get to the excitement inside. The cover, of course, is gorgeous and absolutely perfect for the story it contains. The interior holds visual joys of its own. The map of the isle of Fennbirn is a gorgeous mass of intricate detailing. Even the fonts are striking. Whoever did the layout and technical production deserves a massive raise. I just wish the narrative appealed as much as the visual elements did.
Before you get your pitchforks out, lemme explain. I didn’t hate Three Dark Crowns, nor did I especially dislike it. There were an awful lot of bits to quibble over, and I suspect how much anyone falls for this book will depend entirely on how much weight they give them. For me, they overpowered the story, but for others they might be negligible. All I can do is tell you what I felt and why. In other words, this is a Your Mileage My Vary book.
Because I like you, I’ll start with the good stuff first. Katharine, Arsinoe, and Mirabelle are wildly compelling. The girls are so very different from each other and are likeable and unlikeable in equal measure. Arsinoe the naturalist is unrefined and nonchalant, personality traits that put her at odds with the other nature magicians. Katharine the poisoner begins as a frail, frightened girl and becomes a determined, defiant young woman. Elemental Mirabelle is all confidence until she falls in love and learns to fear others and fear for others.
The worldbuilding is also aces. Fennbirn has a believable history, complicated political machinations, and varied social groups. Think Westeros for the YA set, minus dragons. Blake is also great at setting tone and building tension. Once the action finally gets going she delights in twisting the knife deeper and deeper. The shockers in the final act will have grave ramifications for the queens and their courts, and I for one can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Now comes the grumbling, so if you don’t want to have your good opinion tainted, skip to the end.
The first issue is the pacing, a problem conflated by the fact that there are approximately 3 million characters in the book. Blake’s structure of giving each queen her own POV chapter helps once you settle into the pattern, but because the queens all have a dozen hangers-on, many of whom get POV sections within the queen’s chapter showing a scene from their non-royal perspective, it’s very easy to both lose the thread of all the plots and find it hard to care. Some of the courtiers are complex creatures with rich inner lives—Natalia the poisoner aunt, Elizabeth the secret naturalist priestess—but most either have so little impact on the narrative that it’s easy to forget they even exist—like Bree and Luke who do…stuff…I think?—or are one-note characters—Jules, Joseph, Madrigal, Billy, Luca, Pietyr, etc.
Thing is, if most of the extraneous characters were cut out the main story wouldn’t suffer from the losses and it would give more screentime to the more important yet just as underserved side characters. Given how the book turns out, Jules, Joseph, Billy, and Pietyr should be far more interesting people than they are, and that they aren’t is largely because when we do see them, they’re too busy obsessing over the queens. It’s as if whenever Mirabelle, Arsinoe, or Katherine walk away, the others cease to exist. Other characters disappear entirely despite Blake treating them as if they were super important to the storyline.
If you’re the kind of reader who really digs cishet love triangles and overwrought Romeo and Juliet-esque romances, you’ll probably have a good time with Blake’s newest series. Honestly, the overabundance of shoehorned romantic subplots was what really kicked me off Three Dark Crowns. Nearly every one of those 3 million characters have the hots for someone or are mad about who someone else has the hots for. And every one of those romances is heterosexual. (The lack of diversity is another big sticking point, but it’s also, sadly, a common one in YA.) Blake dabbles with critiquing some common YA and fantasy tropes, but instead of committing to the contradiction she veers back at the last minute and goes full trope.
Speaking of the end, Three Dark Crowns doesn’t. And this is probably my biggest issue with the arc structure, namely that there isn’t one. I actually had to pull up the page count online to make sure I didn’t have a faulty galley. There are cliffhangers and then there’s ending before the ending. The first two thirds of the novel move slow—too slow for my taste, but a lot of people really like glacially slow burns—and the final act rips through a dozen storylines in about a hundred pages, building up to the final moment only to have its knees knocked out from under it. I’d much prefer books in a series to be their own complete story. They don’t have to be episodic, but they should be able to stand on their own. Three Dark Crowns feels like the first section in a GRRM-style epic fantasy novel rather than the first book in series.
I know this review wasn’t what Blake fans were hoping for. Hell, it wasn’t what I was hoping for either. Despite the negativity of my review, I hope I haven’t completely put you off Blake or her books. There really is a lot to like in Three Dark Crowns. No matter how I felt about the experience of reading her latest book, Blake is a great writer with a strong, unique voice. I’ve loved her previous work in the past and I’ll love her future work. Just because this story didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it doesn’t work at all or won’t work for you. Again, YMMV here, and I’m certain my dissents will be in the minority. At least give it a chance to win you over.
Three Dark Crowns is available from HarperTeen.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.